Men in run-down, anachronistic businesses in New York in the 1960s always seemed to have the air of a Borscht Belt comedian who had gotten tired of telling jokes. They always seemed on the verge of saying something, before saying nothing.For Lazar, the terms of my analogy (torte and retorte?) are not so far removed. For him (and his readers) the essay is a pleasure; it may or may not have nutritional value, but it will remind you that you are alive. Of course, by the same token, this particular torte may contain more than the allowable p.p.m. of gall. There’s a lot of rather unpleasant topics (like, uh, death, divorce, decay, dating). The thing is, his discussion of them transforms them into something - not necessarily palatable by themselves, but undeniable, when this writer serves them up.
Lazar’s guiding lights are Montaigne and Lamb, and one could do worse for guiding lights. He is an unrelenting proponent of the Essay - not “creative nonfiction,” i.e., the realist short story that happens to be derived from “real-life” material (though you wouldn’t know it if you were not told, so similar is the form to mainstream fiction). The essay is different from “autobiographical excursions that insist on epiphany” (too common in poetry, as well - in 2013 even - one might add). This is a crucial distinction, and you should buy the book simply to encourage someone who is willing to make it publicly and vociferously:
The best essay’s sheets are rumpled, askew; it sits on the corner of the bed with one eyebrow raised. Memoir, too often, stands at the window in white linen; it gazes out wistfully, not admitting it wants a large greasy breakfast.Ouch. And right on. And funny, even to the point of near-Wildean zingers: “She had the laugh of someone who has had too much therapy, and needs much more.” “Meeting the dog” has already become a cross between a punch-line and a come-on in my home. Or more sober, but no less memorable: “A good run of bad luck strains our sense of the probable, turning it into the absurd. At such moments we see ourselves as fictional.” Narrative in the essay is OK - “Anecdotes are like essay candy” - but a whole book of candy? No thanks. Lazar deploys anecdotes, memoiristic or not, judiciously, as a saucy saucier should do.
The essay “Queering the Essay” makes a strong case that it is that genre (not, say, “Poetry”) that is the true and proper medium of trans-genre or genre queer (not unrelated to gender queer for Lazar) literature. Sure, he uses the materia poetica of his life - a lot of it, in fact. But it’s always in service to something that you can care about even if you don’t happen to be David Lazar: the frisson of a ringing pay phone (remember them?); taking a taxi in one’s (former) home town; death; mentorship; sex; the presentation of the self; death.
But the biggest pleasure (for this reader) of Lazar’s essays are his sentences:
But the fluid, indefinable masculinity of Astaire, the otherworldly trances of the great dances with Rogers (I clung tenaciously to the tow of them as the necessary pair) had been important to me ever since I started watching them on four o’clock movies - my gateway to so much ideological twaddle and necessity, so many images of charming impossibility, tuxes and gowns, beauty and wit, bandstands and banter, art deco and décolletage.(this in an essay about death, mind you) For instance again: the sentence on page 12, beginning with “after” and ending with “tongue” would not be as funny as it is were not the penultimate and antepenultimate clauses as long as they are, in comparison to the last. (Really, you don’t have to think this way to enjoy the book - you can enjoy a boat ride w/o thinking about displacement and buoyancy. But civil engineers are different; you’ll still get to the other side, even if you aren’t one). Those of us who love the sentence as a unit of composition, its deepening level of clause subordination, even to the point of intricacy (not to mention those of us who cannot, even in the simplest sentence, resist the parenthetical aside), its workings, both mechanistic and organic, will be delighted by Lazar’s.
For him, the essay is not about linearity. Sure, you want the papers in freshman comp to be coherent; you want your instruction manual to stay on topic. Those are not essays in the Lazarian sense. “[I]n its classic form, the essay doesn’t quite know where the hell it’s going to go from the outset.” Lazar’s essays, like Emerson’s or Montaigne’s, are like listening to a particularly intelligent, sensitive, and creative friend captivate a dinner party after the plates are taken away; only in Lazar’s case, he has foregone the cognac for a triple espresso. To switch metaphors: his sentences are meandering paths into the woods: at first lovely, green, and sylvan, then darker and rather unsettling, and there may be a witch or mama grizzly (or MFK Fisher) at the end. But that’s what you get if you walk in the woods, and Lazar is the pied piper or sylph or whoever it is that draws you deeper in, until you realize your soul and body are where they really are anyway: lost. In addition to being formally inventive and delightful, the essays in Occasional Desire use humor and brio to get at the rather dark and tacky recesses of life. Here is his reading of the iconic airplane/cornfield scene in “North By Northwest”:
It’s a dream so large it could fill a childhood. The dreamer in this scene is a man on the ground, a man with a camera, a man watching the screen from the safety of his chair. But anyone awake in the dark or asleep in the day senses that the dreamer has an X on his back; he can only run hard in that timeless space and flat time, when the dark wings pick up speed and descend at midday, zeroing in on us, like a toy holocaust whose remote control is shattered.Or overhearing a couple on a train and ruthlessly dissecting the moment:
SHE: What are you thinking about?
HE: I was wondering what you were thinking about.
SHE: Me too.
Understood by the eavesdropper: The couple is on a cusp, being prodded to jump onto the tracks of metalove by the little amourvore on their shoulders, the grim reaper who tells them their emerging self-consciousness is charming and knows, to boot, that no one will risk saying what’s really on his or her mind. The safest response can lead to romantic carnage.I should say that my upscale culinary metaphor is chosen advisedly. As you might imagine, there is more of Freud than of Marx in this book: this essayist sees the world in terms of individuals and their relationships. If you’re looking for political critique that is just as incisive in its sphere, we should talk. But it has been my experience that political movements are composed of individuals and their (dysfunctional) relationships, and this book provides quite a bit of insight in that department. Indeed, much of Lazar’s charm comes from “a kind of adaptable interest in the world and seeing [him]self in it” - "himself" being a character as fallible and self-protective as any of us. Knowing your Freud doesn’t mean you can cure thyself, any more than knowing your Marx makes you a political organizer. But in both cases, auto-critique can go a long way.
But it’s the pleasure principle that keeps one engaged in Occasional Desire - even when reading about a preternaturally awkward date or about Francis Bacon’s sometimes ghoulish portraiture. No wonder I devoured it as fast as I’ve devoured any collection of essays. And it didn’t spoil my appetite for more!